Fifteen years in Saranac Lake, and I still expect something that’s not going to happen ─ April. Not the April of the mind. The one that’s well clear of winter and charging into warmth and promise and new life. Up here April is winter-that-will-not-die. It’s dirty snow and the possibility of more and dripping eaves and ice on all the lakes.
It’s not just that April is too early for spring; when full spring finally does arrive, it stays only long enough to stir inchoate longing and then it’s gone, as if it had never come at all.
After a month or so of mud, there is a brief glorious episode of daffodils and lilacs, then it’s onward to cool summer, then blissful short warm summer, and then, by God, we’re swimming through August, and from the boat, a little fall color has already begun to show on the shoreline slopes.
It’s possible that life-long residents of Saranac Lake don’t see things this way.
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The other day I walked down to Fogarty’s marina where we keep the pontoon boat. The path wound through the cemetery behind the monastery. The grave stones under gray sky and dirty snow spoke to me of what I wanted not to hear.
I knew the boat wouldn’t be in the water yet; the lake had hardly begun to thaw. I thought it might be in the shop, though, having oil and lubricants added, being made ready as I already was. Too early for that. It was still cowering in shrink-wrap in the storage lot across the road. But the mechanics had returned from their winter in Florida. That was promising.
I expected to see some kids in shorts as I was walking, but I didn’t. They’ll do that as soon as the temperature gets up to about forty. It’s the Adirondack way. I haven’t adapted to that extent. I wouldn’t be wearing shorts for another couple of months.
I made coffee and went up to my study on the second floor. It’s at the back of the house, looking down onto that trash-talking graveyard. It never gets the last word, though. The view is to the east, and for a few minutes every morning, my tabby cat and I read and mark like Holy Scripture the coming of the light. It fights the rows of darkling markers to a draw.
I resisted the urge to make a fire in the cast iron stove that’s next to my desk. That just didn’t seem like the right thing to do when the calendar indicated, however misleadingly, that it was April. The warmth would have been welcome, though; as usual, it was chilly in the old house.
In winter, to save on fuel, we keep the thermostats as low as we can without risking frozen pipes. It works out. When we’re not in bed under a pile of blankets, we wear layers of wool. And the Sunday-best bathroom has a heated floor, a modern convenience for which Ann and I and Baby Kitty are deeply grateful.
Even in summer, it’s often not T-shirt-comfortable in the house. One Friday night, we arrived from the city to find that our contractor had left most of the 104 windows open. Of course he did. He was “letting the warm in.” Letting the warm in? Not something anyone would do back where we come from. A good idea in the North Country, though. Provided, of course, there happens to be some warm to let in. We’ve had guests who’ve set hearths blazing in the middle of July.
I had thought I’d do a little work at my desk, “iron a paragraph” or two as E.B. White put it. First though, I’d just step out on the sleeping porch and take a look at the bird feeder that hangs in the birch tree outside the window. From the rocking chair, it’s only six or seven feet away. It’s as intimate as it’s possible to get with wild birds.
The porch is one of many that were hung off the house in the early twentieth century to turn it from a residence into a tuberculosis sanatorium — cure cottage in local parlance. (It became a monastery when a contemplative order of nuns arrived in 1953.) Patients more or less lived on these unheated porches, lying on chaise-like furniture known as cure chairs, breathing the clean, cold air that was thought to have the power to heal.
A woman who had “cured” in our house (sounds like something that’s done to a ham, doesn’t it?) told me that only patients with good prognoses were admitted here. No deaths that she knew of. I doubt the patients were so sanguine about their prospects at the time. Behind the depot where they arrived from New York and other cities, coffins waited discretely to make the return journey. Though the new arrivals were protected from the sight of the coffins, at that point in history, everyone knew that TB was often fatal. But now all these years on, their fear has run its course, their bloody coughing has timed out. I’m pleased to share the porch with their recovered spirits.
I have it on good authority that some birds stick around here right through the harshest weather, so I keep seed in the feeder all winter. But the only ones I’ve seen then are chickadees, sparrows, and ravens. Don’t know what they eat; they rarely visit the feeder.
I don’t hear their songs then either. I miss that sound, especially the chickadee’s, which is not only pleasant, it is — to me, at least — intriguing.
Walking around Moody Pond in warm weather, you can hear them bounce the chickadee-dee-dee call back and forth from the woods on opposite shores, a distance of a quarter mile or so. It’s said to be a sort of organizational signal to the flock, like something a drum major would use. With so few chickadees wintering over, I suppose that avian column-left-march command is not needed then.
They have another call, a mating song, that is also missing in winter. (Humans are unusual among God’s creatures; we mate at whatever time of year we feel like it, maybe even more often when it’s too cold to play outside.) I look forward to the resumption of that tune that compresses into just two notes “come live with me and be my love” and so on. I’ve listened to it with great interest for a long time. To my ear, it seems like every chickadee I’ve ever heard begins on the same pitch — E or F, I think — as if directed by some natural tuning fork.
While waiting for spring, I read up on it. I was wrong. Almost the same pitch, but not exactly. But the interval between the two notes is always the same. When males sing that high-low drop (a major second, I’m informed), females respond, even though it’s not much of a song as bird songs go. But it works. Just like it did when my mother would go out in the front yard and whistle that same interval to announce that it was time to stop playing and come to supper. Her major second floated clear and free from Avenue G all the way to Avenue H where the Morris boys lived.
And — this gets my attention — she always started on the same pitch as the chickadees. I can’t imagine how she came to use that pitch and that unchanging interval. She was an accomplished violinist — played until a smart-mouthed young conductor told her she had geriatric fingers — but she didn’t know a chickadee from a catbird.
Even though it was not real April, I loaded the feeder to overflowing, oiled the mechanism on the squirrel baffle, and started watching.
I don’t know much about Adirondack bird migration patterns and habits; I just enjoy their presence when they show up — especially goldfinches. And I was eager for them to come back.
In the past, we’ve been away most of the time, so I’ve never enjoyed a full season of daily watching. But one day a few years back, I got lucky. I was startled by a flash of brilliant yellow when Mr. and Mrs. Goldfinch popped out of the white pine, swooped about for a moment in characteristic roller-coaster undulation, shot through the birch, and lit on the feeder. They enjoyed a few seeds and then rose up and went on their way in another flash of color. I’ve sighted them occasionally since then, but not as often as I’d like.
The other day while I was sitting around wishing we could have April here like other places do, I read that goldfinches tend to go about in small flocks. That I’d like to see. It brought to mind a transcendent moment from years earlier when I flushed a group of roseate spoonbills in a Gulf Coast marsh. Maybe this will be the year when I get to see an assembly of goldfinches.
Baby Kitty takes a seat on my lap and joins me in staring at the feeder. It would seem that this doubled intensity of expectancy would will some activity into being. It doesn’t though. We see nothing but the full feeder swaying gently in the breeze, unapproached.
I’ve known cats and dogs who make a good case that they possess minds as well as brains. If not quite that, they are at least the occasional agent of miracles. I think particularly of blessed Peewee, who came to me on the third day of a serious sore throat, put his paws on either side of my neck, and caused my fever to break. And so I’m pretty sure Baby Kitty is not merely staring out the window, she’s thinking, grumbling in solidarity with me. Where is April? Are the birds ever coming back?
She has other thoughts, which I don’t share.
As a kitten she spent many long days being tormented by a dove who chose a window air conditioner as the site for a nest. Mama Dove hatched several babies, nurtured them until the cycle was complete and the nest lay empty, a reminder to Baby Kitty that life isn’t fair. She endured those weeks pressed against the window, quivering with kitty bloodlust, making a small rattling sound. I don’t know if those rough days still play in her little brain/mind, but when birds visit the monastery feeder, she assumes the same attack posture and makes the same throaty little sounds.
Last month I bought a squirrel shield. I don’t know why I bothered; nothing has deterred the squirrels before. Any time those bushy-tailed rodents are the least bit peckish − which is often − they teeter across the wire and scramble over other obstacles just as I’m giving the birds a welcome-to-the-monastery-smile that would do both St. Benedict and St. Francis proud. I know, squirrels are God’s creatures, too. But they spoil my fun. I’m putting out the word to friends and family that for my birthday I want one of those expensive electric feeders that shocks the miscreants a little, then flings them off into space. That could be as much fun as watching birds.
* * * *
One of these days the goldfinches will be back. Rose-breasted grosbeaks and purple finches and nuthatches, too. Downy and hairy woodpeckers will come to the suet blocks. Perhaps some species I haven’t seen before, say a red crossbill or an evening grosbeak, will accept my offerings.
I wonder if I should bring up the outdoor furniture from the basement. It’s far too early to sit out, of course; it’s still April-winter. The porches won’t be fully sittable − even in the warmth of afternoon − for another month or six weeks.
We’ll know when the time for that is upon us. The lilacs will give the signal that the melting is finished for this year, the mud is almost dried, and warm days are on the way.
And then, after a little longer, it will be as if non-April never was, and the Saranac Lake calendar will once again seem to have twelve months.